The PJ Tatler

AC-130 Gunships for Libya?

Gadhafi’s forces have moved back into eastern Libya. Two weeks ago Gadhafi’s forces began mimicking rebel tactics. I discussed this tactical shift in a column written April 5. Here’s the gist of it: Gadhafi’s henchmen started using trucks instead of tanks and armored personnel carriers for transport and combat. This shift was forced upon them — coalition air power has turned Gadhafi’s tanks into death traps. The shift in tactics has reduced the effectiveness of NATO air strikes.  This NPR report from April 12 (based on interviews with French carrier pilots) addresses the dilemma:

“(French Rear Admiral Phillipe) Coindreau acknowledged that it was still difficult for NATO to ascertain the exact balance of forces on the front lines between Brega and Ajdabiya, because Gadhafi’s forces have started breaking their units into smaller, more maneuverable contingents and using civilian vehicles for transport and combat actions.”

NATO bombs have accidentally struck and killed rebel fighters (in at least two serious incidents). The April 5 column mentioned that Gadhafi hoped to exploit these such grievous errors (eg, accidental bombings, so-called friendly fire) and drive political wedges between the rebels and the international coalition. Over the last week he has certainly tried to do so.

However, the rebels are weak militarily. Despite the accidents, they depend on NATO air power. On April 12 and 13 rebel spokespeople requested more coalition air strikes. A report surfaced that NATO’s lead nations, Britain and France, want the US to provide AC-130 Spectre gunships. This CBS News report is brief but David Martin does a good job of explaining why the AC-130 would be useful given Gadhafi’s current ground tactics:

(quote) They [the Libyan rebels] want the U.S. to attack not just Qaddafi’s air defenses but his ground forces, and specifically they want to bring in AC-130 gunships. Here’s the problem: In a video, you can see a British jet dropping a bomb on a Libyan tank. It destroys the tank, but then look what happens – all the Libyan soldiers that were operating with that tank flee in pickup trucks. It’s hard to bomb a pickup truck, but you can attack it with an AC-130 gunship.

The AC-130 is a four-engine turbo-prop– a heavily armed version of the C-130 Hercules transport. It can loiter over the battlefield and provide pinpoint firepower. But it is also slow and large. That means the skies in which it operates must be cleared of enemy interceptor aircraft. Enemy surface to air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery  (AAA) fire must also be eliminated or thoroughly suppressed. Gadhafi’s air force is gone, but NATO aircraft are still encountering SAM batteries and ground fire.

We also learned that the Obama Administration’s claim that US aircraft had ended offensive strike  operations is, well, another one of those “heavily hedged” statements. US aircraft have hit SAM batteries and radars. The Pentagon characterizes the missions as defensive (ie, protecting coalition aircraft). However, clearing out SAMs makes the sky a safer place for the AC-130. US aircraft have also been flying electronic warfare (eg, radar jamming) missions.

Here’s the AC-130’s wikipedia page. Note the comment about its use in “urban operations.” It can provide accurate close support to soldiers fighting in cities (built-up areas in Pentagon jargon). Accuracy improves when the AC-130 crew receives on the ground targeting direction from US Green Berets or SEALs.

AC-130s have flown missions over Libya (in late March through April 4), but note the official statement that the strikes were not providing direct support to the rebels. This site connects to videos of the AC-130.

Sending Ac-130s into combat has a political prerequisite: President Obama would have to change his mind (again). The Obama Administration, in pursuit of what it presumably calls smart diplomacy, has employed confusing political signals and cloudy rhetoric. Obama said Gadhafi must go but given the president’s record of flipflops, who knows if he means it? “Gadhafi must go” rhymes with “Gitmo.” Promises promises.

Meanwhile, back at NATO: France wants Obama to re-engage US forces. Senator John McCain agrees. Note McCain adds “…we need people on the ground to identify targets.”